The state’s second-largest school district and its teachers’ union begin mediation Wednesday, in an attempt to move contract talks that have become stalled and acrimonious.
Utica Community Schools has been bargaining with the Utica Education Association since March. The union’s contract expired in June.
The district requested that a state-appointed mediator join the talks, according to a statement from Utica Community Schools.
“We remain committed to finding a collaborative agreement with the union representing our teachers,” said Superintendent Dr. Christine Johns. “There are times when an objective third party is able to help all sides find common ground. The key is an agreement that is fiscally responsible and financially realistic.”
The Utica Education Association has accused the district of not bargaining in good faith. The union filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the district last month.
UEA President Liza Parkinson says Utica teachers have given up regular pay increases in the past few years to help the district through some tough times, amounting to at least $65 million in collective lost wages.
Parkinson says now that the state has restored school funding back to 2010 levels, UCS needs to do as some of its peer districts have done and restore teacher’s “steps”—pay rates that correspond with their years of service.
“We’re not asking for back pay. We’re asking just to be placed back on the salary schedule where they would have been as reflected by years of service,” Parkinson said.
Parkinson said teachers are asking for steps to be restored over three years.
“We’re not asking the district to take this in one big gulp, because we know that’s too much,” she said. "And we’re also not being financially irresponsible with our proposals, we are being responsible. But teacher retention is a huge problem.”
Parkinson said she and fellow teachers are “beyond frustrated” with the drawn-out contract talks, which she has accused Johns of “micro-managing.”
“My team is fully vested with the authority to bargain, and is ready to make a deal,” Parkinson said. “Sadly, they’re sending their teachers home for winter break not feeling particularly valued as employees of this school district.”
Parkinson said the administrative judge in the union’s unfair labor practice case has advised the UEA to participate in mediation. A hearing in that case is set for late January.